The Bold Woman of Surrey

In less than 10 years, a young, ambitious Anita Huberman worked her way up to the Surrey Board of Trade’s top spot. And while she evolved, she’s been transforming the organization and city into an essential, all-in-one hub for business in British Columbia and beyond.

Photo by Erich Saide

When Anita Huberman was a summer student at the Surrey Board of Trade in 1993, she never thought she’d one day hold the organization’s top job. After working in Surrey one day a week, she earned a degree in communications with a minor in European history from Simon Fraser University before working as a management trainee at Royal Bank. That’s when her life took an unexpected turn. After a year on the job, Huberman realized that banking was not for her. Instead, she returned to the Surrey Board of Trade, climbed the ranks, and became the group’s CEO before her 33rd birthday.

Back in 2006, when Huberman stepped in to lead the organization, the Surrey Board of Trade was facing tough times. Just three employees managed the entire organization, which lobbies numerous government bodies on behalf of thousands of members, employees, and businesses. It was in the red, and its reputation and actionable results were what Huberman describes as “abysmal.” She was hired to turn the entire organization around. To do so, she would have to build trust with stakeholders and politicians to make the organization into a respected brand capable of supporting and attracting business to Surrey through industry-specific programs and services.

At just 32 years old, Huberman had her work cut out for her, but in less than a decade, she’s managed to make the Surrey Board of Trade one of Canada’s most respected chambers of commerce. She’s accomplished that through professional growth and development. “I started by leveraging my expertise in communications while educating myself, performing research, and surrounding myself with mentors and experts to feed me knowledge,” she explains.

Although Huberman didn’t set out to become the organization’s CEO on day one of her summer job, she recognized and nurtured leadership qualities during her high school days, when she excelled in academics and sports. Throughout her career, during which she climbed the Board of Trade’s ranks from assistant to manager to executive, she always looked for leadership roles. “You can make the most-effective decisions in leadership, and that’s always appealed to me,” she says. “As you grow, you learn how to implement strategies at the right time with the right team, and how to cultivate your work so you get buy-in for your vision and for how what you’re doing fits into the larger picture.”

“You can’t only communicate through technology and expect to get big sales or nuture relationships.”

Huberman focused primarily on relationships and resolved to work harder than anyone else. “I made it through four interviews, and when I got the job, I knew I would put in 12- to 14-hour days to develop my new brand as the new leader of this organization,” she says. And although it took time and sacrifice, a young Huberman ultimately earned the trust of board directors, employees, politicians, and other stakeholders.

Today, she leverages such platforms as social media to build on her strong following—sharing priorities, thoughts, and projects—but she still relies heavily on relationship building. “Social media has been instrumental in allowing me to build my brand,” she says, “but face-to-face meetings can’t be totally replaced. You can’t only communicate through technology and expect to get big sales or nurture good relationships.”

A degree in communications allowed Huberman to make these strides quickly while also convincing governments and other groups to come back to the Surrey Board of Trade for policy opinions and information. Simultaneously, Huberman used her skills to revamp the organization’s strategies and set it apart from Canada’s other commerce chambers.

Because Surrey will be the largest city in British Columbia before 2025, Huberman made international trade a top priority—and she did so by importing European methods. “Chambers in Europe, India, and Dubai have become international trade centres, so we’ve done the same in Surrey to promote global opportunities with a network of consulate offices and international organizations through which we promote Surrey, identify new opportunities, receive overseas delegations, and encourage trade,” she explains. “We’re now an all-in-one centre for business.”

Additionally, Huberman revitalized the Surrey Board of Trade’s entire government advocacy, moving it beyond the basics of taxes and employment to social-policy issues such as poverty reduction, health care, and child care. Those often-overlooked issues, she says, affect productivity and the workplace. By seeking changes in legislation around social-policy issues, she believes the organization will make Surrey into a livable city that naturally attracts more businesses than ever before.

“The whole marketing piece around social media is very critical, but it’s also about the economy and the social aspects of the workforce that are changing so fast. Adapting and creating new and innovative policies is especially important in the nonprofit sector. We do that effectively by first building healthy partnership with our 20 board members, who each come from different sectors with their own goals. The relationships must be innovative and fluid.”

Almost a decade into its turnaround, the Surrey Board of Trade is the region’s go-to source for public-policy information and is respected both citywide and nationally. “There are 450 other boards, and we do things nobody else does,” says Huberman, admitting that she is a shameless self-promoter. “Nobody else does it for you. You also get the criticism. Not everyone will like you, but you better accept that, because it comes with being a leader.”

As the organization continues to advocate for business at all levels of government, the Surrey Board of Trade has also focused on three workplace development initiatives that Huberman says will drive future success: labour, immigration, and youth. Almost half of Surrey’s population has a mother tongue other than English. The Surrey Board of Trade wants those people to be both economically productive and committed to the local economy. At the same time, though, a skills-matching shortage threatens to wreak havoc. Huberman and her peers believe so strongly in the importance of labour, immigration, and youth that the organization is doing HR assessments at local companies and going into high schools to provide mentors and educate young people on the value of a career in the trades.

Each month, Surrey’s population adds between 1,200 and 1,500 people. It’s Huberman’s job to make the region an attractive one that can also support continued growth. “If we do our job well, we’ll help move Surrey forward,” she says. “That is why we’re here.”